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'Driving Muhammad Ali around Croker in a golf buggy is a stand-out memory'

Croke Park Commercial and Stadium Director Peter McKenna has been overseeing events on Jones’ Road for nearly 15 years.

Stand apart: McKenna pitchside at Croke Park.
Stand apart: McKenna pitchside at Croke Park.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

IT IS NOT a job for the faint of heart — the Garth ‘He Who Shall Not Be Named’ Brooks saga is testament to that.

But it is also a job with many perks, and Peter McKenna has presided over lots of changes in GAA HQ since 2001.

The 82,300 capacity stadium is one of Europe’s largest, and event management like that undertaken over the weekend just gone is understandably logistically complicated.

“The All-Ireland final is our marquee day,” says McKenna. “You have a million-plus people watching on television and for us it’s like taking the population of Galway and trying to fit them all in Eyre Square — there are a huge amount of logistics involved.”

This year, however, the All-Ireland hurling final weekend proved an even greater stretch of the Croker resources.

“We had the Dublin-Mayo semi-final replay on the Saturday and the hurling final the following day. There were bars to be cleaned and re-stocked, there was a lot of rubbish to be collected and there was a lot of stress on the teams,” he says.

The team behind McKenna numbers around 55 people, but on match-day there can be over 2,000 personnel involved overall when you take into account the Gardaí, stewards, waiting staff and cleaners, among many others.

McKenna wasn’t always destined for a life engaged in the marketing and event management fields.

My degree was in chemical engineering from UCD so I was destined for a career in the petroleum or pharmaceutical industries, or something along those lines,” he says.

He then inadvertently moved into publishing, joining the Smurfit Group on a graduate programme after qualifying. The importance of the media and networking in McKenna’s current position are evident, and those are skills he would undoubtedly have picked up in those days managing the Smurfit publishing group, before his eventual foray into Croke Park life.

The last 15 years have been important ones in the stadium’s history; numerous big-name concerts have taken place (and not taken place) at headquarters, with the likes of Westlife, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and U2 having graced the stage.

The International Eucharistic Congress three years ago was another much-publicised event, and of course the temporary relaxation of Rule 42 in 2005 saw soccer and rugby take to the hallowed turf for the first time in the stadium’s 132-year history.

McKenna fondly recalls the important role then-GAA President Seán Kelly played in making the latter a reality, with the emotion surrounding Ireland’s 43-13 thumping of the English at Croker in the 2007 Six Nations surely one of the Emerald Isle’s greatest sporting moments.

The result marked England’s worst ever result in the tournament’s history, in terms of both points conceded and points difference (30 points), with Rule 42′s relaxation, in McKenna’s opinion, “very good for the country and very good for ourselves. Everyone was a winner at that time.”

WARNING: Goosebumps will likely occur when watching the following clip:

Source: docathail/YouTube

The stadium director also fondly recalls the Special Olympics opening ceremony in 2003, at which he had the distinct honour of driving his hero Muhammad Ali around the Croke Park pitch.

Ali himself fought in the stadium on 11 July 1972, defeating Alvin ‘Blue’ Lewis by technical knock-out in Round 11 in a highly-anticipated bout.

The GAA in general and Croke Park in particular have been financially boosted in recent years through initiatives like the GAA Museum and stadium tours, as well as the introduction of the Etihad Skyline.

The rooftop tour takes patrons to 17 storeys high and includes unparalleled views of the capital. It is notable that the museum does not receive government support even though it helps “preserve our cultural identity” as McKenna puts it, but the Skyline tour has been very successful and helps fund the museum in turn.

The GAA is much more than just the big-name players. It’s as much a cultural institution and cultural icon for the country. And when a big company like Etihad comes along and tells us they like what we’re doing it’s fantastic.”

Rumours have been abound lately that Conor McGregor will defend his featherweight belt at Croke Park next summer if he can overcome the challenge of Jose Aldo in December in Las Vegas, with UFC Vice-President of International Development Joe Carr remarking recently that “Croke Park would be a brand statement for the business.”

UFC President Dana White also mentioned the possibility just last week, but McKenna says that Croke Park have not been approached and “until we are, it’s just speculation.”

Originally published at 0615

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Shane Hannon

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